Re-Learning Our Lives as Readers by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner
Nobody starts out reading like a specialized academic researcher; that is something a person learns over time. One of the consequences to that kind of training is–very often–a narrowed-in focus, which you need and is a valuable skill when building particular kinds of arguments for particular kinds of readers. But that narrowing-in can also be restrictive. As a specialized academic researcher, you tend to read exactly what you need to make your arguments, or to respond to somebody else’s, and very little else. There just isn’t time, often resulting in cocked head and chuckled sigh anytime someone asks what you read for fun. Reading for fun? We remember what that was, sort of.
To write our latest book Share Better and Stress Less, a middle grades digital ethics guide that follows the hijinks of an extremely online cast of teens, we had to find a different voice. And to do that, we had to find a different set of reading practices. Or to put it more accurately, we had to–we got to–relearn how we used to read.
Ryan: For me, I had to remember how to slow down, to take a moment to breathe in and out what I was reading, deeply and fully. To meditate with a text, not inhale it.
When I fell in love with reading, I fell in love with reading slow. I was in middle school, and my grandparents got me a subscription to National Geographic. I spent hours on each issue, transported to new worlds word by word, image by image. I meandered with no one to quiz my retention, count my pages, or rush me onto the next assignment.
Then came the Ph.D. I always imagined scholars as medieval monks, sitting in dim light breathing in volumes with unharried wisdom. Grad school, it turns out, was a numbers game. Three classes a week times six articles a class minus all the attention paid to teaching and grading and showering equals, welp, just read the first sentence of every second paragraph 17 minutes before class and call it good.
Getting a Ph.D. in social media was even worse. I was reading a lot for my own research, but it wasn’t deep dives into Chaucer or Beowulf or whatever the monks read. It was tweets and memes and posts flying past so fast I got dizzy.
Reading lost its shine at this pace, and my writing suffered. To recapture the love, to recapture my voice, I had to get slow again. I bought an iPad, resubscribed to National Geographic, and now I steal away hours, put my phone on do-not-disturb, and meditate with my old friend.
That sort of slowing down is a key takeaway of Share Better and Stress Less. The attention economy and social media algorithms love when we inhale. Folks make big money when we ping pong all over and let the content keep coming. But the inhale is exhausting and leads to intellectual and relational mistakes–misinformation and misunderstandings. Sharing better is often sharing slower, and relearning to read slower helped me teach that lesson.
Whitney: What I reconnected with was a particular sort of reading that was actually active and compassionate paying attention. This was the most important skill I learned in my MFA program at Emerson College. My cohort read each other’s work and talked about this piece and that piece during workshops, yes, but ultimately the best feedback wasn’t about what was read, not exactly. The best feedback was about what wasn’t quite on the page yet but needed to be. That was reading between the lines, with the goal of getting to the heart of the person who had written.
Reading in order to understand others–what connections they were making, what they were motivated by, what they weren’t quite ready to say just yet–was what had drawn me to reading as a young person. That was also the kind of reading that was needed in order to write Share Better and Stress Less.
But maybe not reading in the most obvious directions.
One key site was physical. We wanted to teach strategies for reading the signs of the body to identify when the stress brain–or as we describe it in the book, the lizard brain–hijacks our nervous system, complicating our efforts to respond thoughtfully to the messages constantly whirring across our devices. If we can’t identify those signs, we can’t offer ourselves the care we need to bring our systems back in balance.
The natural world is another site of reading in the book. Just like in my MFA workshops, if you’re not working to understand connections, motivations, and what hasn’t been said directly, you can’t get to the heart of things. We therefore encourage students to read meaning in ecological metaphors: redwood roots, hurricanes, and land cultivation, to better appreciate how we fit within our own stories and in the stories of others.
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Re-learning how to read in these ways–as an act of slowing down and an act of listening–didn’t just help us make our argument in the book, it became the book’s argument. Reading better, in other words, is central to the goal of sharing better, and in publishing this book, what we hope is to inspire a bit of both.
Whitney Phillips, PhD, is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, with research interests in political communication, media history, and online ethics. She is the author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture and the coauthor, with Ryan M. Milner, of The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online and You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape. Share Better and Stress Less: A Guide to Thinking Ecologically about Social Media is her first book for young adults. Whitney Phillips lives in Oregon.
Ryan M. Milner is an associate professor and the department chair of communication at the College of Charleston. He studies internet culture, including everything from funny GIFs to Twitter debates to large-scale propaganda campaigns. He is the author of The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media and, with Whitney Phillips, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online and You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape. Share Better and Stress Less: A Guide to Thinking Ecologically about Social Media is his first book for young adults. Ryan M. Milner lives in South Carolina.